Saturday, August 10, 2019

Strange Impersonation (1946)

March 16, 1946, release date
Directed by Anthony Mann
Screenplay by Mindret Lord
Based on a story by Anne Wigton, Lewis Herman
Music by Alexander Laszlo
Edited by John F. Link, Sr.
Cinematography by Robert Pittack

Brenda Marshall as Dr. Nora Goodrich
William Gargan as Dr. Stephen Lindstrom
Hillary Brooke as Arline Cole
George Chandler as J. W. Rinse, attorney
Ruth Ford as the real Jane Karaski
H. B. Warner as Dr. Mansfield, plastic surgeon
Lyle Talbot as Inspector Malloy, chief interrogator
Mary Treen as the nurse
Cay Forester as Roper, receptionist and interrogation witness
Dick Scott as the detective

Distributed by Republic Pictures
Produced by W. Lee Wilder Productions

Strange Impersonation is a strange film on many levels. Even the title is a bit strange. The film is categorized as a dramatic film noir, but it borders on science fiction: The main character, Doctor Nora Goodrich, has invented a new anesthetic and needs to discover its effects on humans. She and her lab assistant, Arline Cole, conduct the latest experiment in Nora’s apartment—on Nora herself. (Did many scientists experiment on themselves in 1946?) The film has plenty of noir characteristics, however: a scheming femme fatale, blackmail, a fatal fall from Nora’s balcony, characters assuming false identities.

The opening credits are very simple: white type on a black background. Many films noir are low-budget B films, but this one took simplicity to the maximum. The film starts with an overhead shot of New York City, then cuts to an exterior shot of the Wilmott Institute for Chemical Research. (I did an online search for “Wilmott Institute” but couldn’t find anything in New York City, past or present.) The film then cuts to Doctor Nora Goodrich giving a presentation at the institute about her new anesthetic.

Stephen Lindstrom, Nora’s fiancĂ©, also works at the Wilmott Institute. He is in the audience and rushes to congratulate Nora on her presentation. Lindstrom is shown as the more ardent of the pair. He pursues Nora relentlessly and chides her about her professional demeanor. I can’t say that I blame him: There’s a rather comical scene in Nora’s living room, with Nora and Stephen sitting on her couch. He wants to steer the conversation to romance, but Nora responds to Stephen’s every conversation starter with intellectual prowess and knowledge.

Nora is focused on her science research (understatement!), and she sees no reason to include Stephen in her work. She would rather work with her lab assistant because the arrangement is much less complicated. In fact, Nora wants to keep her experiments secret from Stephen. The tension in the film comes partly from the romance versus science dichotomy: The film presents the choice as a pure dichotomy—for Nora. Stephen never faces this choice. He’s not a participant in the conversation when the subject comes up between Nora and Arline:
Arline: “. . . Oh, Nora?”
Nora: “Yes?”
Arline: “When are you and Stephen going to marry?”
Nora: “Oh, I don’t know. We haven’t made up our minds yet.”
Arline: “You want to marry him, don’t you?”
Nora: “Of course, I do. Why do you ask?”
Arline: “I was just wondering.”
Nora: “Why?”
Arline: “Oh, I was wondering if I’d like working in a lab so much that I’d delay my marriage. And I don’t think so.”
Nora: “Well, I guess that’s something we have to make up our own minds about. See you tonight, huh?”
Arline: “Okay.”

(This blog post about Strange Impersonation contains spoilers.)

Nora’s experiment, in which she and Arline inject her with her new, untested anesthetic, becomes a horrible nightmare—literally. Arline apparently attempts to botch the experiment and harm Nora because she has decided that she wants Stephen for herself, and she does everything possible to win him over. She lies to Stephen; she lies to Nora. She uses their love for one another and their good instincts about each other to manipulate them both. Her machinations are squirm-inducing, but I was hooked: With one plot twist after another, I had no idea what to expect.

Nora’s ordeal comes to an end when she wakes up on her living room couch and finds Stephen trying to rouse her. Arline left after Nora took the injection, at the same time that Stephen arrived. All of the nightmare was apparently the result of taking the anesthetic. Stephen tells Nora that she never should have tried the anesthetic on herself, which is obvious to everyone except Nora. But her nightmare taught her one valuable 1940s postwar lesson: Marry Stephen. Nora is now desperate to do just that.

This film seems incredibly dated to me, someone watching it from the perspective of life in 2019. I wondered about the title: Strange Impersonation. Nora undergoes plastic surgery in the film to take on the identity of another character, so that’s an obvious source for the title. But is it also a reference to Arline’s role in Nora’s anesthetic-induced nightmare? Is it a brief commentary on Nora’s wish to be a successful research scientist, which is a “strange impersonation” for a woman in the postwar era, whose only business should be finding a mate and bearing children?

With all that Nora goes through, the overarching theme seems to be that Nora needs to come to her senses and marry her boyfriend Stephen Goodrich because that is what women ought to do. They certainly were encouraged to do that after World War II. Returning service members needed jobs, and women taking these jobs during the war needed to leave them in peacetime and make room for the men, the veterans.

Blue Sky Metropolis, a four-part documentary on PBS, focuses specifically on wartime industrial production and the peacetime transition to the flight and aerospace industries in California, but it also mentions the effects of these changes and attitudes on women and children. Click here for more information.

Strange Impersonation shows women that they have only two choices: a professional career full of loneliness—maybe even danger—or marriage. The film has two female leads, and much of the plot centers on their work and their intrigues, but it all leads to Nora running to Stephen in the end. So maybe Strange Impersonation really is more noir than drama: It paints a rather bleak picture about women’s options after World War II.

Once Nora injects herself in her own experiment, the plot becomes a little more fantastic and unbelievable, but I found myself wondering how it would all end and what would happen to Nora. It certainly kept my interest. Believe it or not, watching the film in 2019 may add to the suspense: If you were a woman living in 1946, in the postwar United States, maybe you guessed the ending rather easily.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Blue, White and Perfect (1942)

January 6, 1942, release date
Directed by Herbert I. Leeds
Screenplay by Samuel G. Engel
Based on the story by Borden Chase and the character Michael Shayne created by Brett Halliday
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Edited by Alfred Day
Cinematography by Glen MacWilliams

Lloyd Nolan as Michael Shayne
Mary Beth Hughes as Merle Garland
Helene Reynolds as Helen Shaw
George Reeves as Juan Arturo O’Hara
Steven Geray as Vanderhoefen
Henry Victor as Rudolf Hagerman
Curt Bois as Friedrich Gerber, alias Nappy Dubois
Marie Blake as Ethel
Emmett Vogan as Charlie
Mae Marsh as Mrs. Bertha Toby
Frank Orth as Mr. Toby
Ivan Lebedeff as Alexis Fournier
Wade Boteler as the judge
Charles Trowbridge as Captain Brown
Edward Earle as First Officer Richards
Cliff Clark as Inspector Peterson
Arthur Loft as Joseph P. McCordy
Ann Doran as Ms. Hoffman
Charles Williams as Theodore H. Sherman Jr., printer

Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox

Blue, White and Perfect is the fourth in a series of twelve films. Lloyd Nolan starred as Shayne in seven of the films until the series was dropped by Twentieth Century Fox. These seven films were released from 1940 to 1942. When the series was picked up by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Hugh Beaumont took over the role of Shayne for five more films, all of which were released in 1946.

These Michael Shayne films starring Lloyd Nolan have become a guilty pleasure for me. I put them in the avant noir category (what many call proto-noir, a precursor to noir), but that’s getting to be more and more of a stretch, especially in 1942, past the point in time (1940) that many modern viewers consider the cutoff for categorizing film noir. There’s no doubt that all these Michael Shayne films so far, including Blue, White and Perfect, are a lot of fun to watch, and I am not going to quibble with anyone who disagrees with my categorization!

Click on each film title below to see my blog post about the Michael Shayne films I have written about so far.

After the credits, the film starts with a taxi driving through the city streets of Los Angeles. It stops and leaves Michael Shayne in front of the Merle Garland Beauty Shoppe. On the sidewalk, Shayne runs into Officer Barney, who lends him a buck for his cab fare. Michael Shayne may be a successful investigator who solves his cases (and entertains viewers so beautifully), but he is always scrambling to be paid for his investigative work and to pay his debts. This is an overarching characteristic of Michael Shayne that forms part of the plot in each film.

When Shayne enters the beauty shop, one of the employees, Ethel, is reading the magazine True Detective (click on the magazine title for more information about the magazine from Wikipedia). Ethel tells Michael Shayne that his girlfriend (Merle Garland) is off at city Hall to marry Alexis Fournier. Shayne runs off to thwart the wedding: He brings two police officers and a detective to arrest Alexis Fournier.

The film cuts to Shayne’s apartment, where Shayne is having a discussion with his landlady about the rent he owes. When Merle shows up at his front door, Shayne gets rid of the landlady, and Merle and Michael have an argument about Shayne’s intrusion into Merle’s love life and her engagement to Alexis. In the middle of the argument, Inspector Peterson calls to say that Shayne was right about Fournier: Fournier has a long police record. Michael Shayne is very happy, of course, to be proven right and to relay this bit of news to Merle. Merle and Shayne make up, but she tells him that she will marry him only if he gives up his private investigation practice. Shayne agrees.

(This blog post about Blue, White and Perfect contains most of the spoilers.)

Shayne gets a job at the Thomas Aircraft Corporation. He calls Merle from Joe McCordy’s office at Thomas Aircraft and tells her that he has been hired as a riveter, but this is a lie to placate her: He is really working as a private investigator for the aircraft corporation. He has not been hired to spy on the workforce (he says that he refuses to be a “finger man”). No, Shayne’s job is to prevent sabotage. The film was released in 1942 but was probably filmed at the end of 1941, that is, during World War II. Enemy spies could be lurking anywhere and everywhere, including manufacturing plants and especially in plants making war materiel. Shayne’s relationship with Merle is put on hold while he does what he loves most: being a private investigator.

As usual, the plot is convoluted, with Shayne explaining it all—or almost all—at the end. Some of the details elude him, although the actions of other characters bring everything to light for viewers. Shayne himself adds to some of the confusion: He lies to Merle about the nature of his job at the Thomas Aircraft Corporation, and he dupes her out of $1,000 so that he can pay for his passage on board the S. S. Princess Nola and follow several trunks from Los Angeles to Honolulu. The trunks are part of his solid lead about smuggling between the two locations that might or might not involve international intrigue.

Shayne does find international intrigue in the form of industrial diamonds being smuggled out of the United States. The title of the film comes from Shayne’s description of the diamonds when he finds them: “There’s nothing blue, white and perfect about those.” Industrial diamonds don’t have—and don’t need—the same luster and glitter that diamonds intended for use in jewelry do. I suspect that viewers in 1942 knew something about this because of wartime industrial production, but I had to search for more information online.

For more information about industrial diamonds, click here and scroll down to the section called “Industrial-grade diamonds.”

The expression “blue, white and perfect” may help Shayne’s investigation, but it doesn’t describe the state of his romance with Merle. At the end of the film, Shayne goes to Merle Garland’s hotel room. She is angry with him naturally about the money he stole and because he lied to her. She throws a lot of breakable items at him before he can get through the door to her room. Shayne finally enters holding up a newspaper with a headline praising his work in breaking up the smuggling ring. He tells Merle that they should get married. She agrees, but when she opens her closet door to pack, a dead body, with its ankles tied and a knife in its back, falls out. Shayne is off on his next case, and he leaves Merle behind, fainted and jilted again.

I found myself wondering at the end of Blue, White and Perfect whatever happened to Shayne’s job at the Thomas Aircraft Corporation. If he was fired permanently, I missed it. But complete clarity is not the point of these Michael Shayne films. Humor, fun, and murder cases solved by Shayne himself are!

The DVD that I watched came with a featurette entitled “Nabbing the Crooks the Mike Shayne Way.” I have yet to find anything about the Michael Shayne films that isn’t fun, and I’m not the only one: Stuart Kaminsky, Alain Silver, and James Ursini discuss the differences between the Michael Shayne in print, as created by Brett Halliday, and the Michael Shayne versions portrayed on radio, on television, and in film. The featurette is definitely worth a look, especially for those of you who, like me, enjoy comparisons between stories in print and the film versions.